Western Sahara - significant progress made in expanding confidence building measures for long separated families
GENEVA - Today the UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres and the Personal Envoy of the Secretary General for Western Sahara, Christopher Ross, wrapped up a meeting with Morocco and the Polisario Front and the neighbouring countries Algeria and Mauritania, with the good news that they all agreed on a number of measures to significantly increase the number of Sahrawi families that see each other after more than 35 years of separation.
"For over three decades fathers have been separated from their children, wives from their husbands," the High Commissioner told the participants. "I am really encouraged that, thanks to progress made in this meeting, many more families will finally see each other after a long and painful separation."
Also present was the Special Representative of the Secretary General, Hany Abdel Aziz, who heads the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO). He reaffirmed MINURSO's commitment to continue offering support for the confidence building measures programme.
During the two day meeting, it was agreed to follow up on the 2004 Plan of Action and focus on the humanitarian purpose of the confidence building measures programme, which aims to enable over 30,000 Sahrawis on both sides of the divide to reconnect. Six proposals were agreed upon that aim to expand both the number of people who are able to visit each other and increase the possibilities for communication.
On 7 January this year flights resumed between Western Sahara Territory and the refugee camps in Algeria. Each of the flights takes around 30 people in each direction, so progress is slow. To date, since the confidence building measures programme began in 2004, 13,000 people out of a list of over 40,000 have been reunited during five day visits in both directions.
Amongst the proposals agreed upon were for UNHCR and MINURSO to undertake a technical assessment mission to establish a route to allow families to be transported by road. This mission will start as early as April this year.
It was agreed that one single list of individuals to be transported by UNHCR will be submitted by UNHCR to the Parties for approval after verification has been completed following full access on both sides of the divide. This will allow for a pool of pre-cleared candidates which should lead to more frequent visits being carried out. To date verification has been done separately for each flight, occasionally leading to last minute delays.
Telephone and mail communication between separated families were also discussed. UNHCR was requested to come up with proposals on ways to activate these two services in the near future. Until September last year UNHCR supported four telephone centres that enabled over 140,000 telephone calls.
A seminar with the Sahrawis on both sides of the divide as well as regular coordination meetings were agreed upon at the conclusion of the meeting.
Sahrawi refugees started arriving in Algeria in 1976 after Spain withdrew from the Western Sahara and fighting broke out over its control. The majority live in four camps in the desert regions of Tindouf. However, a part of the Sahrawis live in the Western Saharan Territory and to this day families, including husbands and wives, parents and children, remain separated.